January 7, 2022

What an old edition of Encyclopedia Britannica can tell us about the erasure of trans and queer people


Image taken from 1952 advert for Encyclopædia Britannica (as it was spelled at the time). As you can see the expected customer was white, cis and straight.


In the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1942, queer and trans people are invisible.

I am old enough to remember that owning the complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica was a status symbol – a clear sign that you and your family aspired to a better position in life. 

Truth to be told, it was also an amazing product. Imagine more than 20 large size volumes packed with scholarly articles about everything. As a student I used Britannica extensively to get an introduction to new topics. I loved it.

It is still around, but now as an online service. Given the extensive reach of Wikipedia, however, Britannica does no longer have the position it used to have.

Britannica was originally a 17th century  Scottish invention, but more recent editions are made in London and New York. It has always reflected the interests of an Anglo-Saxon culture. This means that you may use the historical editions as a time machine. You may study the world views of editors and the article authors of the past, and as such get an idea about what they considered culturally acceptable.

When  a  friend of me inherited the complete 1942 version of Britannica, I decided to do an experiment.

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